Image provided by listal.com, trailer courtesy of youtube.com
What I love about Martin Scorsese’s 1991 “Cape Fear” remake is the Alfred Hitchcock style of filming used. Not only is Scorsese an excellent director, but he understands the style needed to make a film scary…the style of Alfred Hitchcock.
While watching “Cape Fear,”I was reminded of “Vertigo” and “The Birds.” It uses the extreme, yet peculiar, close-up shots and the similar cold-hearted blond women that Hitchcock was famous for using. The heavy emphasis on colored lighting and the not-so-subtle hidden meanings were used to convey a mis-en-scene style.
Not only was using Hitchcock style of filming useful in showing sociopathic characters slowly sinking deeper into insanity, but the style brings back that old horror movie feel, e.g. the heavy pounding score and that similar suspenseful pulse that keeps you on your toes. In order to achieve these thrilling scare-tactics, Scorsese used the famous British horror cinematographer Freddie Francis.
“The main thing was Freddie’s understanding of the concept of the gothic atmosphere … He understands the obligatory scene of a young maiden with a candle walking down a long hall towards a door,” said Scorsese after being asked why he used Francis for “Cape Fear.”
Much of the suspense is attributed to the character of Max Cady, played by Robert De Niro (originally played by Robert Mitchum). Cady is a demented Southerner who, after recently being released from prison, is back to get revenge on his lawyer, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), who retained pertinent information to his case that could have reduced his sentence.
Cady is an unusual villain, however. Apart from being ultra-religious and covered in crucifix tattoos, he is well-read (learned to read in prison), highly manipulative and sociopathic. De Niro played a similar role, Travis Bickle, in Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” We see a little of Bickle in Cady, and a little of Cady in Bickle.
They share a similar sociopathic and mentally disturbed way of thinking, yet they differ in surface appearance. Cady is composed, cultured and highly intelligent whereas Bickle is reclusive, uneducated and rarely makes sense. This shows De Niro’s highly developed acting abilities and extensive character repertoire.
The basic plot of “Cape Fear,” for those who haven’t seen this version or the 1962 Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum version, is a North Carolina family being terrorized by a vengeful and psychopathic killer.
The character of Sam Bowden is interesting…you think he is scumbag in the beginning for wanting to cheat on his wife, pay-off Cady for hiding important evidence and willing to break the law to stop Cady, yet as the film progresses, we realize that Bowden was Cady’s lawyer and by burying that evidence he prevented a rapist from walking the streets. Of course Cady does not just terrorize Sam…he targets Sam’s unstable and easily manipulated family.
Sam’s wife Leigh, played by “American Horror Story’s” Jessica Lange, is just as helpless and useless as she was in the 1976 version of “King Kong” (yet not as useless as Fay Wray in the 1933 “King Kong). There are so many scenes where the chance to escape is effortless, yet Leigh feels that falling down and screaming is a more intelligent decision, tsk tsk.
Not only is she helpless, but she is unfulfilled in her marriage, which not only leads to her chain-smoking and consistent appearance of being under the influence, but it makes her an easy target for Cady. Not as easy however, as Bowden’s daughter Danielle, played by Juliette Lewis. Danielle plays a typical angsty teen who is not understood by the adults in her life.
To manipulate her would be simple…pretend to understand her sexual frustration and the developments she is going through. This is exactly what Cady does. As a result, Danielle forms a sick sexual attraction to Cady.
“He [Cady] didn’t force himself on me, although you would like to think that,” said Danielle. “I think he was just trying to make a connection.”
What I love about this version is that Scorsese casted Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck as well. They obviously don’t play the same characters they did 30 years before this film, but it must have been a unique experience for De Niro and Nolte to be standing next to the original Max Cady and Sam Bowden.
Unfortunately, the film is not perfect…surprising for Scorsese. Along with the old-school horror style comes the stupidity and idiotic decisions of the old-school horror characters. The remaining 30 minutes of this film was a let-down and made me question the films integrity. Why would you hide from a sociopathic killer in some secluded river and how the hell did Cady hide under a car?
The ending scenes are poorly acted and filled with nonsense. It was like Fatal Attraction Part II with Cady, he never seemed to fully die. I’m sure when this film came out in 1991, it was considered well-acted and high-tech, but 20 years later it is far-fetched and ridiculous.